Texas Supreme Court sits at Austin College

Area high school students joined attorneys, judges, college students and others on Tuesday in welcoming the state Supreme Court justices to Austin College.

The Court sat in AC’s Ida Green Theater as part of the college’s Kenneth W. Street Law Symposium. In addition to hearing oral arguments on two cases, those who attended the symposium also had the opportunity to take part in question and answer periods with the justices and three discussion panels.

AC President Marjorie Hass said she was delighted with the turn out for the oral arguments. She said she was especially happy to see that the audience held such a broad spectrum of the community including everyone from the high school students who were invited by AC alumni and the local legal community.

When asked how the college came to be the place the Court picked for one of its visiting locations, Hass said she was pretty sure AC alumni had something to do with the selection. Osler McCarthy, a 1973 graduate of AC, is a staff attorney and public information officer for the Supreme Court of Texas. In addition, the introduction to Tuesday’s oral arguments was given by Fred “Buck” Files Jr., a 1960 graduate of AC and member of its board of directors, who is the president of the Texas Bar Association.

Hass said it is not surprising to see AC graduates in leadership roles in the state’s judiciary. She said the college’s emphasis on social justice and commitment to community service makes its graduates prime candidates for positions in government and the judiciary.

A current AC student is hoping to follow in those well-worn paths. Robert Reilly, a junior from Allen, said he wants to practice patent law after he finishes his studies in political science and computer science at AC. He said this is the second time he has seen the Supreme Court at Austin College.

“I think it is fantastic. Our pre-law society does a great job putting events like this together,” Reilly said. He said he first came to an AC Law Symposium as a high school senior at Allen.

Haas said it is not surprising that students from Austin College go on to some of the state’s and nation’s top law schools. The state’s first law school opened at Austin College 1856. Despite its importance in legal education in the state, Hass said the college has no intention of seeking the return of a law school. She added that the college plans to stick to providing a solid undergraduate education which, she said, she feels it does better than any other college.

Once the oral arguments were concluded in Lee C. Ritchie, et al. v. Ann Caldwell Rupe and Greg Sawyer et al. v. E. I. duPont de Nemours and Co. the group in Ida Green got to know the Supreme Court a little better through the question and answer section of the event.

One of the questions struck a nerve with the justices. A student asked about the state’s practice of electing justices. Justice Nathan Hecht said that though some of the justices are appointed at first, they all have to go through elections to stay on the Court. Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and others then talked about the need to get out and meet the voters in the state. They said often times a justice is elected or removed from office based on his or her party affiliation. Some justices lose their jobs not because they aren’t good at them, but because a county’s voters back the opposite party in a general election.

Being up for election, Hecht said, means that justices have to raise money. Often that money comes from attorneys and it is hard to make people believe that justices can remain impartial when those same attorneys, or their firms, practice before the court. All of the justices that spoke on the issue seemed to agree it would be best if the state picked justices by some other means.

“Many of us here have been trying to change the system for decades,” said Jefferson.

The justices also talked about some of the administrative duties that they handle in addition to their work on cases that are brought before the court. Each of the justices is assigned liaison work within the judicial community.

Justice Eva Guzman talked about her work on the Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families. She said that group is dedicated to improving the educational outcomes for children in foster care. She said the liaison assignments are a place where the judges can really see change in the law.

Justice Jefferson then asked the newer members of the Court if becoming a justice on the Supreme Court had turned out to be what they thought it would be.

Justice Boyd was appointed to the Court in Dec. 2012 and said he is still trying to get used to the work load. He said each justice gets around 25 petitions to review a case each week. He tries to read each of those cases himself, he said. If one of the justices is interested in one of those cases, they send them to the justices to read and he said a conference between all of the justices could have as many as 120 cases for the group to discuss. In addition, they have days when they hear arguments and then days when they do things like the event at Austin College.

He compared the process of reviewing cases to a conveyor belt that just never stops. Boyd said it is Jefferson who makes sure that belt keeps moving and the Court doesn’t bog down.

When asked about his job as chief Justice, Jefferson said, he is probably the most public face of the Court. He said other justices receive calls from the media, but he probably gets the most. He said he is also responsible for giving a “state of the judiciary” report to the state legislature. In addition, he is the person who leads the discussion when justices sit down to talk about cases.

He said all of the justices are dedicated to keeping an efficient docket to better serve justice and the people of Texas.